A History of Anchorage, AK: Anchorage's Interesting Local History

Anchorage, AK History

Anchorage has a history that is unique in the American experience. Acquired in the late 19th century and developed mostly in the mid-to-late 20th century, the area has seen historic events that range from gold rushes to earthquakes, all overseen by a breathtaking natural beauty unparalleled anywhere else in the country. Today, this American city looks much like most others, but its dynamic history can still be seen.

The Alaska Purchase

The Alaska Purchase of 1867The American chapter of Alaska and Anchorage's story begins with the Alaska Purchase. While many people learn in school that the purchase was unpopular and widely known as "Seward's Folly," the deal was mostly seen as a positive.

Russia had established a presence in the area in the first half of the 18th century, and many Russian merchants and fur trappers migrated to the area. However, after being defeated by Britain and France in the Crimean War, Russia needed funding. They were also not confident about their ability to defend their North American territory against the British.

U.S. Secretary of State William Seward was among the many who believed that an expansion into this territory would open up valuable trade routes to Asia. He began negotiations with Russia at the end of the Civil War. On March 20, 1867, a treaty was ratified by the United States Senate to purchase the Alaskan territory for $7.2 million, about 2 cents an acre. The purchase added 586,412 square miles of new territory to the U.S. that remained sparsely populated until the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush, as most Russian settlers left the area after the transition.

The Klondike Gold Rush

The Klondike Gold Rush of 1898While most believed that Alaska would be valuable due to trade, some, like Senator Charles Sumner, believed that the territory would be highly valuable in its own right. He believed that the area's wealth of animals and forests would be a great asset. He was more right than he knew; gold was discovered in the Klondike region of the Yukon on August 16, 1896.

When the news filtered down to settlers in San Francisco and Seattle the next year, it triggered a migration of around 100,000 prospectors. The massive influx of prospectors caused many boom towns to grow along the migration route. Dawson City was one of them, located at the place where the Yukon and Klondike Rivers met.

For most people who reached Dawson City during the gold rush, the boom was more of a bust. Of the 100,000 people who attempted a migration, only around 30,000 to 40,000 made it all the way to the Klondike. Of those, only about 15,000 to 20,000 became prospectors. An even smaller number, only around 4,000, found any gold at all.

The Founding of Anchorage

The Founding of AnchorageAnchorage was first established as a tent city in 1914, but over time it developed out into the Anchorage neighborhoods we know today. A townsite was platted out the following year alongside the bluff to the south of Ship Creek.

At first, Anchorage served mostly as a company town for the Alaska Railroad. The Alaska Railroad had begun building a rail line that began at Seward in 1903, extending northward for 51 miles along the Kenai Peninsula. Another company continued the work, extending the line another 21 miles.

The US government had planned a railroad route from Seward to the interior town of Fairbanks, and purchased the Alaskan Northern Railroad in 1914. They established headquarters at Ship Creek, which was later renamed to Anchorage.

Air transportation became more and more important in Alaska starting in the 1930s. Merrill Field replaced Anchorage's original Park Strip landing field with a more modern one in 1930. By the middle of the decade, the airport was among the busiest civilian airports in the United States.

Military presence in the Anchorage area continued to expand, as well, with the construction of Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base. Anchorage was named the headquarters of the Alaska Defense Command.

World War II and Alaska

Alaska during World War IISix months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, causing the entrance of the US into World War II, the Japanese followed up with the bombing of the U.S. Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base and Fort Mears and the occupation of the Aleutian islands of Kiska and Attu. U.S. military strategists determined that they could not leave these strategic islands undefended and open to be used as stepping stones for Japanese attacks on the U.S. mainland.

The Alaskan National Guard was activated in September 1941, and many indigenous Alaskans joined units of the Alaska Territorial Guard to patrol the Alaskan coasts and perform reconnaissance missions.

The military action led to great growth in Anchorage. During World War II and in the years after, the city continued to grow.

The Great Alaskan Earthquake

The Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964Some of this growth, however, was curtailed by the Great Alaskan Earthquake, which occurred on March 27, 1964. Also known as the Good Friday Earthquake, this 9.2 magnitude quake was the largest ever recorded in North America. Anchorage was only 75 miles from the earthquake's epicenter.

The earthquake lasted four minutes and thirty-eight seconds. During this time, six hundred miles of fault line ruptured and moved up to 60 feet. Ground fissures, building collapses, landslides and tsunamis followed. The quake killed 115 people in Alaska and caused over $300 million in damage.

Many buildings in Anchorage were not built to withstand the stress of an earthquake. Infrastructure like water and sewer mains, sidewalks, paved streets and electrical systems were damaged in the quake and the landsides. Among the destroyed buildings were 75 homes. The residential area that was destroyed is now preserved as Earthquake Park.

The earthquake caused significant damage at the airport, toppling the air traffic control tower and killing William George Taylor, the air traffic controller on duty that day.

The History of Oil in Anchorage

The History of Oil in AnchorageThe Russian colonists in Alaska noted the oil seepages near Cold Bay and Iniskin, but they did not make any attempts to do anything with those finds. American settlers, likewise, did not make much of petroleum exploration or development in the years following the Alaska Purchase.

It was not until 1898 that the first oil wells were drilled in Alaska. However, these early wells produced as much seawater as oil, and they did not produce enough to support ongoing oil production.

The first productive oil drilling operation was on the Gulf of Alaska south of the Copper River delta, where drilling began in 1900. More wells were drilled in 1911 and began to produce larger amounts, but they were still not enough to justify transportation to the U.S. mainland.

In 1920, oil exploration expanded with the Mineral Leasing Act. This allowed lands with oil potential to be opened for exploration. Around 400 exploration permits were issued for Alaska in 1921. Oil production in Alaska would lag for decades behind that of Texas and Oklahoma for another several decades, and while a pipeline was constructed to transport Alaskan oil, the project was soon abandoned.

A much larger oil field was discovered in 1957 on the Kenai Peninsula. This discovery tested at 900 barrels a day, making it a major commercial discovery. Other oil companies soon followed, and more major fields were discovered. Since the expansion, twenty successful wells have been drilled in the upper Cook Inlet, and nearly 1.3 billion barrels have been pumped.

The booming oil discoveries had a significant effect on Anchorage, leading to strong growth in the area from the log cabins and sparse settlements of old. Anchorage has drawn many in the energy field who work not just with oil, but also natural gas.

Uncovering Anchorage's History

Anchorage is an area that has developed largely in the 20th century, providing a sort of snapshot of our country's events in the past century. History buffs will find much to discover if they explore Anchorage and the surrounding areas, and people who move to Anchorage will be captivated by the city's mountainous beauty and breathtaking scenery. There is much to learn about the country's second newest, largest and northernmost state. Visit Anchorage today, and you'll soon discover everything this city has to offer.

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